The Controversial Therapy That’s Shaping Custody Battles

Charges of “parental alienation” may sometimes lead to court-mandated “reunification therapy” treatment, as in the complex Michigan custody case between Omer Tsimhoni, Maya Eibschitz-Tsimhoni, and their three children. Above is the judge in the case, Lisa Gorcyca. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News via AP, Pool)

An acrimonious Michigan custody case that drew national media attention in July when a judge ordered three children into juvenile detention for refusing to meet with their father continues to make headlines. This time it’s as the kids reunite with dad Omer Tsimhoni after going through a controversial court-ordered “reunification therapy” treatment.

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According to the Detroit Free Press, which examined Oakland County court records, the three siblings — ages 9, 11, and 14 — have been living with Tsimhoni, his second wife, and their young half brother since Aug. 13, after attending the intensive five-day treatment “designed to treat parental alienation.” That, according to the late psychiatrist Richard Gardner, who coined the phrase Parental Alienation Syndrome in the 1980s, concerns the harmful effect of one parent turning children against the other parent during a hostile divorce. The concept last gained major attention several years ago, when Alec Baldwin alleged ex-wife Kim Basinger had alienated him from their daughter Ireland, detailing the effects in his book A Promise to Ourselves.

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In this Michigan case, Tsimhoni has alleged that the children’s mother, Maya Eibschitz-Tsimhoni — who filed for divorce in 2009 — has poisoned the kids against him, and that she has mental-health issues. In the past, Eibschitz-Tsimhoni has accused her ex of abusing their 11-year-old, which the father denies. Tsimhoni recently filed a motion seeking full legal and physical custody of his children. Meanwhile, the mother’s former attorney Henry Gornbein, in speaking with Yahoo Parenting in July, has called the entire custody case “off the wall.”

Maya Eibschitz-Tsimhoni speaks with her attorney Lisa Stern during a break in the continuing court battle with her ex-husband. (Photo: Daniel Mears /Detroit News via AP, Pool)

The latest twist in the case concerns the court-ordered therapy — and a request on Tsimhoni’s part for the judge to bar the kids’ mom from contacting them for 90 days to support the reunification process.

Because the court file on the therapy matter is sealed, according to the Detroit Free Press, not much is known about the specifics. But this type of treatment is controversial among psychotherapists, with proponents saying it’s necessary to help the child heal from the abusive alienation from a parent and detractors saying the treatment amounts to “deprogramming” that can be traumatizing, and that it may unwittingly force children into the presence of an abusive parent.

Such therapy approaches vary widely based on the practitioner, with some intensive, retreat-like styles (which appear to be what was used in the Michigan case) costing upwards of $30,000 for a few days, according to Dr. Douglas Darnall, author of Divorce Casualties: Protecting Your Children From Parental Alienation. Other practitioners, including Dr. Ronald Silikovitz of New Jersey, employ a more spread-out method, gaining a family’s trust over time and involving the children and both parents in the process. “I try to involve everyone,” he tells Yahoo Parenting. “Sometimes it works great, other times not.”

Several years ago, after a Canadian judge blocked an attempt to send a child into mandatory reunification therapy during a custody battle, a nonprofit collective of mental-health professionals issued a warning about the therapy. “We support the decision of the judge who refused to court-order deprogramming treatment (sometimes called Reunification Therapy)…” noted the statement from the Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence.

Omer Tsimhoni. (Photo: LinkedIn)

“The controversial treatment is designed to ‘deprogram’ children who are ‘alienated’ from one of their parents during divorce,” the warning continued. “Various forms of this type of ‘treatment’ have sprung up over the last decade. The therapy usually involves confining the child in a location away from home, and isolating the child from the parent to whom the child is most attached. The attachment to the favored parent is challenged, while encouraging the child with intensive sessions to re-accept the rejected parent. Some children have reported receiving treatment involving threats and coercion.”

Dr. Richard Warshak, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry who specializes in alienated children, reportedly ran the clinic in question during that Canadian case. When reached by Yahoo Parenting, Warshak declined comment on the issue of reunification therapy because the Michigan case is still ongoing. He recently addressed many of the concerns, however, in an article published in June by the American Psychological Association, called, “Ten Parental Alienation Fallacies That Compromise Decisions in Court and in Therapy.”

Among the myths, Warshak writes, are as follows: that children never unreasonably reject mothers; that rejecting a parent is a short-term and healthy coping technique for a child; and that separating a child from an alienating parent is traumatic. Because of these beliefs, he argues, custody cases “shortchange” kids needing intervention.

At the crux of the argument about reunification therapy’s merits, according to California-based psychotherapist and parental alienation expert Craig Childress, is that the “pathology” of parental alienation has not been properly defined within the mental-health community and does not exist as an official diagnosis in the DSM-V.

“The pathology traditionally called ‘parental alienation’ is not some form of new ‘syndrome,’” Childress, who recently wrote a book about parental alienation for mental-health practitioners, tells Yahoo Parenting. “It is a manifestation of well-established and well-understood forms of existing pathologies,” he says, and can only have proper treatments developed when it’s established as an official mental-health pathology. In the mean time, Childress says, he also has “grave concerns” about “deprogramming” and “any form of treatment that is not well established.”

Assessing a family to determine whether there is true parental alienation versus justifiable hatred toward a parent who has been abusive is a complex and difficult undertaking — much like a police investigation, Darnall tells Yahoo Parenting. “We look for corroboration from others who know the family, we observe family interactions, and take a psychosocial history,” he explains. “For example, if the child had a good relationship with the parent up until the divorce, then develops an extreme hatred for that parent, you have to ask why the sudden contrast.”

Further complicating matters, Darnall says, is that “often, the alienator has a personality disorder and is obsessed with the notion of destroying the relationship — rationalizing that they are trying to protect their children and firmly believing they are doing the right thing.” The idea behind secluding kids with the targeted parent for effective therapy, he explains, is that the one doing the alienating would sabotage the treatment. “The feeling is that you’ve got to remove the child, so that the parent can’t interfere,” he says.

“Parental alienation is a form of child abuse,” Darnall adds. “The difficulty is that people still have a hard time putting as much weight on psychological abuse as they do on physical or sexual abuse. But the damage can be far reaching.”

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